“Have you ever had the right answer to the wrong question?” With his debut EP ‘How Will I Rest In Peace If I’m Buried By A Highway?//, KennyHoopla asks nearly as many new questions as he answers old ones. As his first formal release (not including a whole host of Soundcloud experiments), it’s an arresting synthesis of ideas, staring emo-trap mortality in the face one moment and experiencing the euphoria of a post-punk disco in another.
We hopped on a FaceTime call – Kenny is at home in Wisconsin where he’s currently based – to talk about the EP, but ended up digging up some deeper truths of race, anxiety, and their manifestation in his fears of growing as an artist in the age of social media scrutiny – 11 thousand Instagram followers and counting, to proffer some kind of idea.
If he flusters in interviews, or agonises over his exact point, it’s because he seems somewhat overwhelmed by the finality of condemning his thoughts to words, of trying to accurately convey exactly how important this all is to him. It is all so clearly very important, from his desire to be talked about on his own terms to how tightly he cherishes an era of music that many dismiss as transitory. Luckily, the music does a pretty good job for him of telling you exactly who he is. Take KennyHoopla as he comes – he’s going to be a star.
Kenny, it’s nice to virtually meet you. How are things going?
Honestly, I don’t even know. The world is crazy right now, I don’t even know how to process anything. I thought, living as a black person with all the stuff you see on the internet, that I was sort of numb to it, but it’s at all started really hitting me all at once. For a little bit, I was really panicking and it was all making me feel really heavy. I’ve been protesting and just trying to do my part. At the end of day, all that matters is that we get people out there, but the way some of the things have been organised, it seems a little like we were losing the goal. It was being exploited, and it was like ‘okay, this is getting kind of weird’.
It’s such a strange balance – even from my perspective, as a mixed-race woman with certain privilege, I have felt very uncomfortable with how many new followers I’ve gained on social media all of a sudden… it’s a little like, oh, why do I only exist on these peoples radars now?
Oh my gosh yes! It’s so funny. I haven’t even processed this out loud yet, the fact that people keep tagging me in playlists of black artists…it makes me feel so awkward.
How did your musical journey get started? What was the first record or artist that really captivated you as a kid?
I think it was either Passion Pit or Phoenix. I’m sure there were rappers in there too – I really liked Ludacris and Nelly. The memory that is really ingrained is just hearing Sleepyhead by Passion Pit and just thinking that I was on that exact wave and I could relate to how loud and how full of colour his music is. And see, it goes even further back before that, because there was like Metro Station and that’s when I kind of don’t even know anymore.
It’s so interesting to hear it that way, because with people of colour it’s often treated as something of a shock that the first music they gravitated to was what is traditionally considered white boy indie.
Yeah, totally. I guess I always did and still do like rap, but I’m way more selective now – I think rap is in a bit of a weird place right now. But I was definitely listening to indie and hard as fuck rock music from young. I even feel weird about it now, which I know I shouldn’t because it’s 2020 and it shouldn’t be surprising for a black person to like anything – but for me, having a black family and being surrounded by black culture, I feel awkward [liking indie rock music]. It’s nobody’s fault, it’s just how it is, but being a black man and actually doing this, it’s a whole different ball game. It’s interesting.
Visible black representation in indie has definitely been lacking, but it’s exciting to think that that might be improving with your generation. Why do you think the boundaries of genre are coming down now?
I think maybe, it’s just the evolution of our spirits starting to become one. You grow up having way more friends and people around you of all kinds of backgrounds – it’s just the reality now. Of course racial tensions are still a huge problem, but now you have no choice but to eventually meet an Asian person or a Black person right across the street from you. You’re constantly exposed to way more different cultures, and hopefully more music.
Are there any styles of music that you just flat out have no interest in trying out?
That’s a good question – you snapped! I wanna say Country but that is way too easy when I haven’t really given it a chance. I guess no – there isn’t anything.
You only really started making music around four years ago – what happened to shift you from being an avid listener into giving it a go for yourself?
I don’t like to say this because I’m not trying to be all like ‘oh, I had a hard life’. But I was born with nothing – I didn’t have music, I don’t have any formal background. My big brother used to make beats but it was never anything crazy. I think I got to 19 and just got sick of being quiet. I wanted to make music my whole life, and when I got into a position where my friend could record me, I knew for whatever reason that I was finally proving myself right, and proving to people like me that grew up in inconvenient situations that it could be done. That’s one of my biggest things – just trying to make the impossible possible and show that you can fluidly live your truth however you want it. I hope that answered the question – I’m always so all over the place.
I think there’s a really important message in all of that, that these things can be picked up on your own terms, even with limited capacity – how you taught yourself to play guitar for the EP for example, and are upfront about learning as you go.
Yes, absolutely. The sound of my music is me, so it’s not hard to make music in principle, it’s just the technicalities of getting it out and making it universal. It took a lot of trusting myself and the others around me. Out of all the songs, I think ‘the world is flat and this is the edge’ was the most challenging, because I was trying to make something like trap music. I used to make rap-ish music before but I’ve always wanted it to be my way, to sound super colourful and have a lot of texture. That song is not amazing at all – it is not my best because it was rushed – but I think I was trying to balance saying enough lyrically but also trying to keep the ear busy at the same time. I don’t even know what I’m saying. I’m so sorry!
I think I understand what you mean. The music clearly takes quite a lot out of you emotionally – how do you draw the line of how much you’re willing to share of yourself with your fans, particularly on social media?
I think I try to be personal with them – they’ll talk to me and we’ll DM and have conversations, but I think I definitely blur the line. With interviews, almost all of them I regret, because I feel like I’m under pressure almost. I think that’s why I try not to talk so much… it’s a hard thing to explain. I’m trying not to have my face and personal self out there so much as my music. I guess it comes down to not doing too many interviews that just force other people’s perspectives.
Fundamentally, it’s a very strange thing – having a random person ring you up and demanding to know your innermost thoughts inside of half an hour. Is there anything in particular that you wish people would ask less?
I just… man. You’ve asked great questions, but this is why I don’t like interviews! I say how I feel and also contradict myself, because it’s so in the moment. I just think people keep comparing me, which I understand, but at a point it starts to feel like it’s reaching. People aren’t giving me the space to be me. The top comment on one of my videos is like ‘this is TV On The Radio meets Bloc Party’, and it made me feel weird because they’re both black and I had to wonder… I don’t know. It goes so much deeper than the boxes people put me in. But I understand it’s just how it goes. I’m aware that I sound like I’m really angry about it too, and I’m not – it’s just something I’ve been trying to think my way through.
Originality is something you speak about a lot – as a new artist, it must be frustrating to feel as if your work is reduced to what came before.
Sure. I’ll have this conflict with music where I’ll listen to stuff, and I’m like, where else is there to go? I get mad that I wasn’t born earlier. The Bloc Party comparison comes up a lot, and I just feel like Kele has a certain energy and I’m almost positive that we see things the same way. However, it comes out in the instruments, I wish people understood that that’s not a purposeful thing but just a more spiritual thing of evoking a certain feeling. So many people keep comparing it to TV On The Radio, but there are songs that I feel are much more like Two Door Cinema Club, or The Drums. I’m sorry I’m talking so much about this. It’s almost embarrassing – I’m embarrassed about how heartfelt and emotional I feel about how quote unquote “weird” I am. I don’t feel proud of it, and with all my favourite bands, it’s the same thing, this pathetic heartfelt sense of just putting it all out there in the music and hoping people feel it.
Do you worry a lot about being liked?
Yeah. Well, mostly, no, I really don’t give a fuck, but when I do worry, I worry a lot. I do get super anxious about how all of the albums I love are getting old – It’s important to me to keep the energy of that era going. A lot of rock music today, I don’t believe it. There’s no conviction or passion – I don’t think they have that orb in them that all the artists who came before me had. You either have it or you don’t, and I know that I have it and I’ve lived it enough to put it out there and make something out of it. I’m aware I sound incredibly pretentious. Man. Sorry.
I think you should probably give Kele a call – I feel a conversation between the two of you would be very interesting.
You think? Everything I’m talking about? I’m getting emotional just hearing you say that. I’ve just been scared because I feel like people have just been shouting my name to him, and he’s probably like ‘wow, this dude is so lame’. But I really do believe that I am coming from the heart that he is coming from. I really would love to have a conversation with him one day. But, sorry. I’m done talking about it now!
Tell me about the slashes in your song titles – what is their significance?
It’s hard to explain, but it’s almost my own form of exclamation mark. Growing up I always used it – it sounds so corny but I think it’s just my own mark of the beast. I have this whole collective that I’ve been wanting to start up and have just been figuring out how to roll it out called ‘Soon//’. Growing up and dealing with mental illness, you would always hope that everything would be better soon – I think that word and the slashes just became a means of always looking forward and always having another ‘soon’ to remind you of getting to the place where you want to be. The end is never the end, and they’ll always be a fight I guess. A lot of people in school used to clown me and make me feel weird – I think it’s just me making it real and not having it be this joke of how people tried to make me feel.
Where do things go from here? Are you looking to make an album?
Yeah, ideally. I just want to make a whole bunch of beautiful music, and get whatever this fucking overwhelming feeling is inside of me out. That’s all I’m trying to do right now – to get the energy I was telling you about out. Ideally that’s an album, but I’m still learning how to make music. Let me answer your question! Yes. An album is what I’m working to. Sorry.
KennyHoopla’s EP ‘how will i rest in peace if i’m buried by a highway//’ is out now